Three years ago, the management at Rich's-the 17-year-old gay dance club in Hillcrest-started an event called L.L. Bear ("Levis Leather Bear"). It catered to a narrow demographic of San Diego's gay scene-one with husky physiques, leather fetishes and a brazen overabundance of body hair. In the gay scene, such gentlemen are known as "bears."
Many now consider the night less flavorful than it was in its early stages. "It's no longer just for raunchy, nasty S&M daddies," says one patron.
But the sexual appeal still garners more attention-and attendance-than any other themed night in Rich's recent history. A night out at L.L. Bear is much more than just a simple evening of dancing at the gay bar; it's a sexed-up, sweaty and oftentimes smelly crash course in one of the fastest growing subcultures of gay life in San Diego.
Strap on your combat boots and leather harnesses, boys: We're in bear country now.
Walking through the dark hallway leading from the main entrance to the front bar at L.L. Bear, the balmy, sticky air and booming thump thump thump from the speakers barely noticeable. That's because your eyes fall immediately on the two giant flat-screen televisions showing several beefy, hairy, leather-clad men apparently, um, sword fighting-with weapons that bear a shocking resemblance to, well, male genitalia.
One quick glance around the 40 or 50 other people in the room is enough to assure you that your eyes aren't the only ones spying the lambskin-laden fencing match. While only a few of the patrons in the front bar are dressed similarly to the men being gawked at on the television screens, it's clear there's a theme to this night's party-a corpulent, unshaven and extraordinarily carnal theme.
As overtly sexual as the environment at L.L. Bear might seem, 31-year-old bartender Timothy James says the night has actually toned down.
"Back when it started, it was a lot more sexual," says James, a five-year Rich's veteran. "There was a lot more S&M, a lot of masters and slaves and much stronger odors throughout the bar-musky odors. Some of those guys really get off on that manly B.O."
The body odor still pervades the ultra-packed dance floor. At peak hours, more than 150 men and even a small handful of women can shake their scantily clad asses to resident DJ Derek's selection of pop-house remixes and '70s and '80s dance classics. The go-go boxes on either side of the DJ booth replace the need for any televised bear porn as various dancers from the crowd, and occasionally a few hired professionals, step up to show the room what they've got.
One of L.L. Bear's amateur dancers, 32-year-old Martin Free Ramos of Los Angeles, can frequently be found perched atop the sweat-drenched go-go boxes. He lip-syncs the words to almost every song and dances with remarkable intensity. As one of the night's regulars, Ramos regards the friendships he's made at L.L. Bear as more important than the sexual aspect.
"The people and the atmosphere at L.L. Bear have always been so welcoming to me that I don't feel like an out-of-towner when I visit," he says. There's a vague innocence to his playful exuberance on the go-go box, especially when juxtaposed against the dripping-wet bodies writhing below him. But once Ramos' shirt comes off, the men swarm and sex takes the night.
"This is one of the friendliest crowds to work with," James says. Then he chuckles, reinforcing the basic, primal idea of the night. "The majority of these guys-bears, cubs, pigs, leather daddies-they're all here to get laid."
How to speak 'bear'
(A colloquial taxonomy of regular patrons at L.L. Bear)
Cub: A younger, less hairy, less rotund bear
Otter: Like a cub, but with less hair and a smaller body frame
Pig: A filthy, musky, tattooed gay man, often indulging in excessive amounts of sleazy, twisted, raunchy sex
Polar Bear: An older, large, hairy gay man
Panda Bear: A large, Asian, hairless gay man
Wolf or Fox: A muscular, hairy gay man
L.L. Bear takes place every third Saturday of each month. $8. 619-295-2195.
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